Time to face the automation challenge with soft skills

Soft skills Eton X's Catherine Whitaker

Catherine Whitaker, CEO & Head of Learning at EtonX, discusses the teaching of “soft skills” in order to prepare students for the workplace… Workers around the world will have been disappointed, but perhaps not surprised by, the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report which predicted that 78 million jobs worldwide will disappear in the next few years with automation.  Key aspects of jobs, from manufacturing to professional services, will be digitised and artificial intelligence will take over analytical roles currently reserved for humans. The report wasn’t all doom scenarios though.  It estimates that if we can upskill our workforces’ technical skills like programming as well as soft skills such as critical thinking, we can create the jobs to replace those lost and add more in the future.  By the forum’s estimates 133 million of them. Problem solved – maybe. But a fundamental worry for educators and employers is that recent research shows a worldwide lack of formal teaching of soft skills that power the adaptability needed in the workplace.  We often don’t teach life skills such as entrepreneurship and public speaking to teenagers because education systems are geared to academic subjects and exam results.  With no globally-accredited soft skills syllabuses and examinations, these subjects remain intangible or difficult to practise. Global data reveal employers and academics’ worries that bright teenagers with strong grades struggle to acquire skills that are key to them getting to grips with university or the workplace.  A 2017 McKinsey report Technology, Jobs and the Future of Work found that a majority (60%) of employers feel graduates were not adequately prepared for work.  A 2018 Bloomberg Next / Workday survey found that nearly half of US academic institutions said new recruits lack the soft skills needed to perform at a high level. In the UK, a CBI-Pearson Skills Survey in 2017 found that a majority (51%) of UK business executives is concerned by graduates’ poor analytical skills. Almost half (48%) were troubled by new employees’ lack of resilience. It’s not surprising that eminent educators like Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice Chancellor at the University of Buckingham, interviewed for The Economist’s Educating for the Future index, believe that education systems worldwide are ‘ill-fitting’ for the 21st-century workplace’s skills needs.  While advanced economies are identifying core soft skills, according to the same report’s evaluation of countries’ digital strategies, only Canada gets top marks for having a strategy targeting future skills and a curriculum framework to support it. Soft skills’ value is, however, finally being identified.  The World Economic Forum’s analysis of over 200 studies worldwide shows students with social and emotional learning instruction achieve academic outcomes on average 11 percentage points higher than those without. The best schools always find a way to blend soft skills with academic or technical subjects, giving teenagers the rounded education they need.  Rather than criticism, schools need more tools to strike the fine balance of new and traditional skills teaching. Education innovators are coming forward with practical tools to help busy schools formalise their teaching of these subjects.  EtonX has launched online soft skills courses for international schools and colleges called the Future Skills Programme to address such issues.  And it’s technology – in the shape of virtual classrooms – that is allowing us to deliver a breakthrough in soft skills teaching. These innovations replicate and improve on the best of physical classes and allow teachers to act as facilitators of debate and discussion between students to promote skills development; the old style of online learning confined teachers to the role of a lecturer. Students can now learn more effectively with and from their peers in group classes online. If the class participants are gathered from different countries, then students develop the skills they will need in the future to work in cross-functional, multi-national and distributed teams.  The virtual wall of a computer screen also helps students step out of their comfort zones in activities such as role plays and participate less self-consciously than they would in a traditional classroom. While we will doubtless lose sleep over the prospect of jobs being reshaped as artificial intelligence shows its capabilities, I believe we are entering a new generation of learning – one that will open up wider life and vocational opportunities for our children than we have ever previously imagined. See etonx.com for more details on the teaching of soft skills. EtonX Future Skills Programme video: https://vimeo.com/289087724